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We are a generation defined by war. Shattering the idyllic innocence of our youth, September 11th fell upon us like a convulsion, bringing us face-to-face with the catastrophic consequences of American foreign policy. New terms were shoved down our throats, the media playing its part to inculcate them into our daily lives: terrorism, patriotism, red alert, liberation, and homeland security all became part of our vocabulary. Like deer caught in headlights, we struggled to come to terms with this overnight upheaval in our worldview.
“Muslims are terrorists,” we were told. “They want to destroy us.” Paralyzed and in shock, we asked, our voices full of trepidation, “We are Muslims. Do we want to destroy us?” We were told to keep quiet and b good citizens—not asking too many questions and submitting to authority. And so, the war generation came of age.
The years passed, thousands more Americans died, hundreds of thousands of the ‘other’ were bombed out of existence, and the perpetrators of September 11th were never found. “How does this story end?” you might be tempted to ask. And that’s just it. It doesn’t. Nearly seven years after the onset of the ‘War on Terror,’ the broken record of American imperialism continues to play. Only we’ve gotten so used to hearing it that many of us have learned to tune it out.
The idea of America as a hegemonic power, exerting its influence all over the world, dominating and conquering at any cost is nothing new. The genocide of millions of Native Americans and the enslavement of the black race bears witness to the blood-drenched nature of our past. The most horrifying of crimes were justified with the obscene claim that the oppressors were acting in the best interests of those they oppressed. Thus, the extermination of an entire people was ‘manifest destiny’ while the colonization of Africa was actually a ‘civilizing mission.’ One would like to think that we have made great strides towards overcoming this legacy, but as the events of the past few years demonstrate, that might be wishful thinking.
After it became clear that Iraq posed no threat to the United States, the Bush administration seized upon a new justification for the war: to liberate the Iraqi people. One would have expected that five years of bloody occupation would have demonstrated the fallacy of imperialism in the name of liberation. Yet, despite costs of over $500 billion and unimaginable loss of life, some continue to advocate a continued American presence in Iraq for as long as a hundred years. More disturbingly, the same faulty logic that was used to justify the war in the first place seems to be alive and well.
In a speech at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in March, Mr. Bush spoke almost messianically of a “call to offer freedom to others who have never known it.” “You and I know that freedom has the power to transform lives,” he says, almost as if lamenting the deprived state of the rest of the world. The rest of the world is thus defined not only by the absence of freedom but by the utter inability to even comprehend what freedom entails. To adapt from the words of that commercial we all grew up watching, not only does Mr. Bush have the Trix, he’s the only one who even knows what Trix are. But not to worry: the president is more than happy to share his Trix with the less fortunate children of the world.
“Freedom is not America’s gift to the world,” Mr. Bush reminds his audience. “It is God’s gift to humanity.” Thus, by offering “freedom” to the rest of the world, Mr. Bush is only doing God’s work. The import of such religiously charged rhetoric is surely not lost on the president’s base of fundamentalist Christians. Of course, America’s offer of freedom comes at the point of a gun; ‘be free or die’ could be the motto of the neo-imperialist worldview. “These murderers were not instruments of a heavenly power,” the president is quick to reiterate. “They were instruments of evil.” The implication is eerily soothing yet profound at the same time: unlike her enemies, America is an instrument of heavenly power.
In the twilight zone that has become our modern political landscape, it is at times difficult to determine who is copying off of whose paper—whether it is the “Islamofascists” who have appropriated the religious right’s defense of violence in the name of God, or if it is the other way around. If the “War on Terror” was merely a thought experiment in the use of rhetoric and propaganda, one might avoid making much of it.
However in a world where those in power have both the means and motivation to impose their dangerous beliefs on the rest of the world, we must be concerned. It is one thing to believe that “freedom” should be spread and quite another to devote the entire resources of a nation to achieving this objective on a global scale. And of course, it is always the innocent who get caught in the crossfire.
Meanwhile, an entire religion is tarnished with the brush of terror and an entire people infantilized and condemned to an eternity of nothingness until they can be liberated by Mr. Bush’s heavenly armies. The year is 2008 and this is America. When will this nightmare end?
As Mr. Bush’s term nears its end, we find ourselves with little reason for optimism—some of the candidates shamelessly support our current course, while others have little to offer besides words and empty promises of ‘hope.’ And so, the broken record continues. The American people must wake up. If we are unable to stop this record, the least we can do is emerge from our shell of self-delusion and hear it playing.
Hamdan A. Yousuf, a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University, is a research assistant in cognitive neuroscience at Columbia University.
Dania S. Ahmed is a student in psychology at Barnard College.